HP011: John Hanson First President?

HP011: John Hanson First President?

John Hanson was a delegate to the Continental Congress from Maryland. He has been called the First President of the United States because he was the first man to serve a full term as President of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and 1782.

The following men served as the President of the Continental Congress:

  • Peyton Randolph (September 5, 1774 – October 21, 1774) and
  • Henry Middleton (October 22, 1774 – October 26, 1774)
  • Peyton Randolph (again) (May 10, 1775 – May 23, 1775)
  • John Hancock (May 24, 1775 – October 31, 1777)
  • Henry Laurens (November 1, 1777 – December 9, 1778)
  • John Jay (December 10, 1778 – September 27, 1779)
  • Samuel Huntington (September 28, 1779 – March 1, 1781)

The following men served as President of the United States in Congress Assembled:

  • Samuel Huntington (March 1, 1781 – July 9, 1781)
  • Thomas McKean (July 10, 1781 – November 4, 1781)
  • John Hanson (November 5, 1781 – November 3, 1782)
  • Elias Boudinot (November 4, 1782 – November 2, 1783)
  • Thomas Mifflin (November 3, 1783 – October 31, 1784)
  • Richard Henry Lee (November 30, 1784 – November 6, 1785)
  • John Hancock (November 23, 1785 – May 29, 1786)
  • Nathaniel Gorham (June 6, 1786 – November 5, 1786)
  • Arthur St. Clair (February 2, 1787 – November 4, 1787)
  • Cyrus Griffin (January 22, 1788 – November 2, 1788)


This is a request from David in Chicago. Thanks David!

John Hanson was the first man to hold the title “President of the United States in Congress Assembled”, eight years before Washington’s election.

Born April 13, 1721 at Mulberry Grove, Charles County, Maryland. His father Samuel served as a member of the General Assembly of Maryland. Hanson was to hold this seat almost continuously from 1757 – 1773. He also served on the Assembly in Fredrick, Maryland until 1779.

In 1765 with the passage of the Stamp Act Hanson worked diligently to organize and manage opposition. In opposition of the Townsend Acts Hanson signed the Maryland non-importation agreement and let a group of men to Tobacco Creek to force the captain of a vessel to return to England.

Parliament closed the port of Boston in response to the Teac Act. Hanson chaired a meeting, which passed a resolution to stop all trade with Great Britain and the West Indies until Parliament repealed the Boston Port Act. He also sent 200 pounds of his own money to those in Boston affected by the closure.

When the fighting began in Lexington and Concord in 1775. Hanson signed the Association of the Freeman of Maryland, which approved firing on the British troops to repel them. He also helped to organized to companies of men to join Washington’s men in Massachusetts. As a member of the convention Hanson helped draw up the state Constitution and Bill of Right’s. Also during this time he foiled a British plan to muster Indians and Loyalist against the colonist. His messages of warning to the Continental Congress lead to the discovery of the Loyalist conspirators.

In 1779 he was sent to represent Maryland in congress at Philadelphia. There he served on committees dealing with finances. He was also involved in the ratification of the Articles of Confederation. Though evidence is scarce it is said that Hanson was a major influencer of those who wanted to hold out waiting for Virginia and the other states to agree to the Articles.

On November 5, 1781, Hanson was elected to a one-year term as the new government’s first president. He was chosen over many other well-qualified leaders, probably because of his work in getting Maryland to agree to the Articles of the Confederation.

While president Hanson formed the first cabinet, consisting of secretaries of war, finance, foreign affairs, and state. Surprisingly enough, Hanson’s first use of the “Great Seal of the United States” was on a 1782 commission authorizing George Washington to exchange ware prisoners. Just days before his left office he proclaimed American’s first national Thanksgiving day to be celebrated the last Thursday of every November.

Hanson had suffered from bad health the whole year he was president and died just a year after his presidency on November 15, 1783 in Oxon Hill, Prince George’s County Maryland, while visiting relatives.

Gay, James Thomas, American History; Jun99, Vol. 34 Issue 2, p12, 2p
ISSN: 1076-8866

The debate about who was the first president still rages on to this day in historian circles. Take this passage below:

“There has been a good deal of brouhaha about who was the first president of the United States. Most vocal have been the supporters of the claim of John Hanson, of Mulberry Grove, Maryland, who held tenure during the year beginning in November 1781. It has been claimed that Hanson was the first president of the United States in Congress Assembled. But the claim is tenuous. Hanson was the first of the presidents of Congress to begin his presidential service at the start of the federal year provided by the Articles of Confederation, but he was not even the first president to serve under the newly adopted Articles of Confederation, since both Samuel Huntington of Connecticut and Thomas McKean of Delaware preceded him as presidents under the new government. Were the functioning of Congress under the new Articles to be the criterion, then a strong case could be made out for Huntington. But even stronger cases could be made out for Peyton Randolph of Virginia, the first president of both the First and Second Continental Congresses, or for John Hancock, the president of Congress when that body declared its independence. Considering the character of the office, its limitations in explicit powers and tenure, and the fact that most executive functions were assumed by the departmental secretaries created under the Confederation, it is clear that one is describing an incumbent who was but first among equals in the Congress, a far different position from the chief executive whose powers were enumerated by the Framers of the federal Constitution. If you ask any schoolchild who was the first President of the United States, he or she will answer, hopefully, George Washington. And it would be correct.”

From pages 107-108 in Richard B. Morris, The Forging of the Union 1781-1789 (Harper & Row, pbk, 1987)

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